Two recent news stories caught my eye and demand some response–a reality check of sorts.
The first: According to the diocese’s newsletter, The Virginia Episcopalian, The Executive Board of the Diocese of Virginia of the Episcopal Church (TEC) “authorized the treasurer to open a $1 million line of credit to cover anticipated legal expenses for the near-term. That line has since been increased to $2 million and about $1 million has been accessed.” In addition, the Executive Board has authorized “the sale of non-strategic diocesan real property” to raise needed funds. Most of you familiar with churches’ budgets might feel your eyes bulging out right now. Two MILLION dollars is a lot of money, no matter who you are. Why on earth would they need such money? The key phrase from the newsletter is “anticipated legal expenses”–that is, legal expenses in secular, not ecclesial, courts. Several parishes in the diocese have voted to disaffiliate from TEC and realign with traditional bishops from Africa. So what is at stake? The eternal well-being of Virginia Episcopalians? The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of sinners? Nope and nope. Property. The diocese will be suing the congregations in order to keep their property, even if there is no one left sitting in the pews. Hence the 2 million clams. Speaking of clams, something is definitely fishy here…
The second: Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh voted last year to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and realign with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The leaders of the congregation and Pittsburgh Presbytery (which is evangelical-friendly anyway) were unsuccessful in their attempts to broker a mutually acceptable severance payment to keep their property. The congregation offered $360,000 to leave with their property. Jumping into the worldly, property-crazed fray, the presbytery demanded no less than $1.7 million, then lowered their asking price to $1.2 mill. The congregation made a final offer of $500,000 as they were contacting their lawyers at the same time. And now, guess what? The congregation leaders are taking the presbytery to (secular, not ecclesial) court to protect their property assets.
These story lines are not unusual. For example, the Presiding Bishop of TEC has a huge legal expenses fund set up to crush local churches in court in order to retain property and to make an example of all who might be entertaining fantasies of joining a more doctrinally pure flock. On the other side of the coin, numerous Presbyterian congregations–those doing the fantasizing–have sued their presbyteries to retain property.
But as I read these stories, a couple of things have hit me. Here are a couple of reality checks:
Reality Check #1) Why all the struggle about property? After all, it’s just bricks and mortar sitting on dirt. I know, I know: it’s really about power and control. Of course, a building can be a great asset for the church to do its divine work–but it’s not a necessity. Bishops and presbyteries, on the one hand, want to exert control over their impudent children, while congregations and pastors, on the other hand, want to protect the investments of their local church families and who do not want to cede millions of dollars to corrupt church bodies. But didn’t Jesus warn about lusting over property? “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…No one can serve two masters, for either he will the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:19-21, 24 ESV)
Reality Check #2) Why are we going to secular courts to settle our internal disputes for us? Are we so distrustful, so spiteful, so worldly that we would welcome a secular (after all, the government tries to be non-religious) decision for us? In my humble opinion, these petty disputes about property demonstrate only how far we have slid from our identity as the church–both progressives and traditionalists alike. Didn’t Paul say something about court disputes? “When you have something against another Christian, how can you bring yourself to go before judges who are not right with God? Why do you not let God’s people decide who is right? Surely you know that God’s people will judge the world. So if you are to judge the world, are you not able to judge small cases as well? You know that in the future we will judge angels, so surely we can judge the ordinary things of this life. If you have ordinary cases that must be judged, are you going to appoint people as judges who mean nothing to the church? I say this to shame you. Surely there is someone among you wise enough to judge a complaint between believers. But now one believer goes to court against another believer—and you do this in front of unbelievers! The fact that you have lawsuits against each other shows that you are already defeated. Why not let yourselves be wronged? Why not let yourselves be cheated? But you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do this to other believers!” (1 Corinthians 6:1-8 NCV)
Shame, shame, shame…